Horizon for social sciences and humanities. What follows Vilnius?
The 23rd and 24th of september, the lithuanian presidency of the European Council is organizing at Vilnius a conference about the social sciences and humanities in the new “Horizon 2020″ research framework. As a member of the steering committee, and as a participant in the conclusive plenary session, I have written the following remarks.
I would like to begin by recalling that the SSH are of necessity critical and that their existence depends on two values: freedom of the researcher, and the search of truth.
The pluri- or inter-disciplinarity to which we all adhere as a priority also deserves to be critically examined. First, because there is a strong tendency to promote links and shared working methods not only with other disciplines, but also further afield, with those whose profession includes some production of knowledge: doctors, activists belonging to NGOs, school teachers, social workers for instance. If research is capable of mobilizing such actors, and many others, and if we consider this important and valuable, if we want to enter the age of generalized reflexivity then we have to encourage it and to develop the methods, the procedures, the approaches which enable this coproduction of knowledge to be done.
And if we plead the case of inter-disciplinarity, we must deal with disciplines as well. Academic research, careers, university life are very largely organized around disciplines, and this is obviously a major brake on pluri- or inter-disciplinarity. We must combat the most negative effects of a curriculum based on individual disciplines without destroying them.
The social science and humanities must think globally, which means: articulating analysis and the practice of research at different levels going from the most general to the most individual, personal and intimate; passing through regional –Europe of course- national and local levels. This should be part of all programs, in order to enable European research to really face the most important world challenges of our times.
To this scientific basic requirement, there is a corresponding organizational requirement: in order to think and research globally, it is imperative to improve the institutional and practical structuring of research and its territorial inclusion at simultaneously international, European, national and local level. This means new institutions, or support to the few that act in that spirit.
The idea of articulating research and the need for answers to the most pressing societal problems may prove to be technocratic, close to some particular interests, or naïve, and run the risk of turning research into a consultancy. We must absolutely always reserve space for free and original thinking, even if it looks very marginal. How could we ask the assessors to promote what is ground breaking in the projects which they examine and in the same time consider that researchers should be only interested in the so-called “major challenges” of our times, as defined by others –an important issue too: who defines what?
The European institutions are often said to be distant from people and their concerns. This criticism is often populist, anti-European and demagogical. But it should encourage us to be vigilant. Consideration should be given to countering the huge tendencies that everybody can observe to bureaucratization or techno-bureaucratization, as well as what we could call “mainstreamlining”. A lot can and must be done in order to improve the organization –I unfortunately have no time to illustrate this issue, which I could do just on the basis of my own experience in Brussels. Our institutions would be strengthened, and not weakened by 2020 if we set up independent instances to deal efficiently and rapidly with the problems related to this issue.
The fact that I belong to a linguistic and cultural world which is not English-speaking leads me to my last point. I consider essential to consider the practical impact, including the economic and financial aspects, of the present situation of linguistic and cultural hegemony. Just a year ago I demonstrated in an article in Le Monde (10/09/2012) the extent to which some countries take advantage of the European Union’s approach and how to get the best out of the present system of the ERC. We need precise knowledge on this issue, and, more generally, political consideration of the capacity of the European Union to combine excellence, widening participation and equality.